It’s an important question. After all, higher education students are spending increasing amounts of money, often building ever-higher mountains of debt in order to obtain a college degree, a qualification that is becoming more and more necessary to find a job, decent or otherwise. I recently walked past a clothing store that had a sign on the door, looking for sales clerks. Minimum educational requirement: B.A. Of course, this was in Cambridge, but still…
On one level, looking at the student as a consumer can be useful, for it can give a priority to student needs and desires. “Customer satisfaction” after all, is good business sense. And we should indeed take our students seriously – their backgrounds, their learning styles, and their needs. It’s not without reason that student evaluations have become (more) important in university hiring and tenure decisions.
But (and you knew there would be a ‘but’, in there, didn’t you?), if students are consumers, then does “education” get reduced to that degree, the cultivation of a mind boiled down to the status of a commodity? That is what seems to be happening in the minds of officials in Florida, who are proposing that the state’s university system charge different majors different tuition rates, according to how “useful” the state deems the discipline in question. That such a proposal would need to be debunked in the first place is disconcerting, but over at the Atlantic, they present a persuasive argument.
However, let’s not pick unduly upon Florida. The commodification of education is a global concern. In Britain, for instance, the prominent historian Keith Thomas and Martin Rees, a leading astrophysicist (and the astronomer royal!), have penned passionate testimonies warning against the rise of a market ethos in higher education, an issue with relevance far wider than the particular context they describe on the shores of Albion. It’s not exactly short, but well worth a read for twenty-first century educators.